Zoe Simmons lives with disabilities that cause her constant, agonising pain and extreme fatigue. Her ability to establish a successful copyrighting and SEO business, in spite of the challenges she faces, is inspiring. Here, she shares the lessons she’s learned from doing it differently, including why female founders need to be brave.
What inspired you to launch your own business?
Starting my business, zoesimmons.com.au, wasn’t something I’d ever really thought about! Even though I had my own ABN and was freelancing as a journalist and a copywriter for a number of years, I didn’t see myself as a business owner.
I’d been working across social media, marketing, and communications for a few years when I realised I had a lot of valuable skills — and lived experience — that could benefit a lot of businesses and organisations. My health was also dwindling significantly, as a result of developing fibromyalgia and adenomyosis. I wanted to take the leap to put my health first, and to see how much I could grow, and how far I could go, if I just believed in myself.
Starting a business takes courage. What obstacles did you have to overcome?
My biggest obstacle was learning how to run a business while living with disabilities. Thanks to fibromyalgia and adenomyosis, I am in constant, agonising pain. I experience bone pain, nerve pain, and muscular pain that feels a lot like I’m being stabbed, beaten and repeatedly kicked by some kind of large-hoofed animal. On top of this, I also experience constant brain fog and fatigue that’s so much more than being just a little bit tired: it’s struggling with basic motor functions and even thinking. So, I couldn’t do business the way non-disabled people could.
I had to re-learn how to live, and prioritise my extremely limited energy. I can generally only work a maximum of a few hours a day, and often, I can’t work at all. Even just sending an email or popping a post on socials is sometimes the entirety of my energy. It’s often frustrating, because all I want to do is work and make a difference. But I remind myself I don’t have to meet ableist and ultimately harmful standards — and that it’s utterly vital to rest.
What challenges have you faced running your business, and how did you resolve them?
I think working with extreme pain and fatigue is my biggest challenge, by far. I wouldn’t say I’ve resolved them, but I certainly manage it. I do this by setting really strict boundaries with my energy. If I do too much, my health worsens significantly — so I make sure to pace, and leave plenty of space for rest. Getting assistance from subcontractors also helps, and I’ve learned to do things in a way that works best for me, even if it might be traditionally frowned upon, like working from bed. It’s not unprofessional to do things that make work more accessible.
What achievement/s are you most proud of and why?
I’m proud of the impact my work has, especially one of my recent articles, ‘It’s complicated’: a love letter to my mobility aids. It’s about my journey to accepting mobility aids, and the complexities of battling internalised ableism when you live with invisible and dynamic disabilities. A lot of people reached out to me afterwards and said how much it helped them. That means the world to me.
I’m also proud of my advocacy work, and being able to work with so many amazing businesses and organisations who value my lived experience.
Have you ever experienced imposter syndrome? How did you address it?
I experience imposter syndrome, all the time, for so many things. I often feel like an imposter with my career — which is something I think a lot of women, especially disabled women, struggle with. We’re told not to toot our own horns, and I think this is really problematic, because it tells us we should hide our light. But this doesn’t benefit anybody.
When I feel like an imposter, I force myself to list through all my achievements. Write a list, if that helps. And remember: everyone has imposter syndrome!
Who has been your biggest champion on your journey, and how did they help you?
My mum is always my biggest champion. She always believes in me, even when I don’t. She’s always there, for the good, and the bad.
But I also have to mention the disability community. I felt so lost when chronic illness took over my life. I felt like I’d never be able to achieve anything again, and I felt so alone. The disability community helped me understand my own internalised ableism and stigma, and the systemic barriers we’re battling. They also showed me I’m not alone. I think they probably saved my life.
What skills do you believe women must have to succeed as a leader?
Bravery. It’s so hard to get into leadership as a woman, and even harder as a disabled woman. It’s not enough to just be confident (or fake it). You have to be brave. You have to put yourself out there, even when it’s uncomfortable and scary.
Speak, even if your voice shakes. Keep being seen, even if it makes your brain and anxiety scream at you. But also: know when to take a step back and rest.
Work/life balance can be difficult. What are your ‘tricks of the trade’?
Well, as a disabled person, work/life balance is even trickier, because I have a much lower capacity for work. I often have to choose one or the other.
My best tips are to pace yourself. Don’t overbook yourself. Leave gaps for rest. Ask for help when you need it, and do things that make life more accessible. I often hire subcontractors to make my work less intensive, and I use my wheelchair to conserve my energy and reduce pain.
Also, get a robotic vacuum. Mine vacuums and mops, and it’s a life-saver.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
I wouldn’t have pushed myself as much. At one stage, I was juggling a job, my health and my business, sometimes working 17-hour days — and my health suffered. I became so sick. Even walking from my bedroom to the loungeroom was sometimes just too much. It took a long time to recover.
I wish I could tell my past self: you don’t have to do everything. Not every opportunity is for you. It’s okay to say no, and focus on what’s really important. And nothing is ever more important than yourself. Rest, and put your health first, always.
Zoe Simmons Top 3 Leadership Lessons Learned:
1. Your health comes first, always.
2. To quote Dr Seuss . . . “Be who you are, and say what you feel. Because those who matter don’t mind, and those who mind don’t matter.” Find your people. Build relationships and make connections. Be kind. And use your voice, even when it’s scary.
3. Remember: you don’t have to uphold ableist business standards. Make your business accessible for you, and accessible for the people you work with.
Images: Emma Veness Photography
© Laini Bennett, MBA